Paris is polarizing. You either love it or you hate it. It’s either cliché or it’s charming. For every romantic who says it’s their favourite city, there is a critic who turns their nose up at its grittier areas, high prices, or crowded tourist attractions. Even Parisians love to complain about Paris (but isn’t that so delightfully Parisian?).
Regardless of personal opinion, Paris is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. It’s impossible to deny that the city has a certain je ne sais quoi (French buzzwords are inevitable in this article, let’s not try to fight it) that is unique to Paris.
For those who look beneath the tourist-trodden surface, Paris is effortlessly and undeniably captivating. To experience the magic of Paris, you simply have to be open to it.
Oui, bien sûr, Paris has some of the most iconic, recognizable, grandiose architecture and landmarks in the world. The sparkling Eiffel Tower elicits gasps from first-time viewers, the immaculate Tuileries Garden enchant visitors, and the far and recent histories of the Notre Dame register it as a worldwide symbol of resilience. The Mona Lisa is smaller than expected, but you still went to see it, didn’t you?
These top tourist attractions are must-dos for first-time visitors, but the real magic of Paris lies in the little things. It’s the aspects that are missing from your guidebooks or tour agency itineraries. It’s the parts that are so authentically Parisian and make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the “moveable feast,” as coined by Ernest Hemingway.
It’s the terraces lining the streets, chairs facing outwards. These seats are populated with Parisians no matter the time of day or season of the year. They can be found sitting and staring broodingly into space. Or pensively sipping on their coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. Or engaging in a heated discussion, because the French language makes everything sound a bit more impassioned. Or exhaling their cigarette as the smoke blows into the face of their neighbour, a practice that is highly frowned upon in many cities but in Paris it works because it’s just so Parisian.
It’s the markets, bookshops, flower shops, and neighbourhood haunts that are frequented by locals who keep the art and culture of Paris alive and well. Strolling through neighbourhoods such as Bastille, Belleville, or Republique will provide a look at locals going about their day-to-day outside the sparkling tourist attractions.
It’s the pâtisseries and boulangeries that line the streets, offering up fresh pastries and bread as if no other food group needs to exist. Those who live here find their go-to spot and line up to grab their treat of choice every day, and it’s commonplace to see locals strolling the streets with a fresh baguette in hand.
But the food sources don’t stop at pastry shops and bakeries; if you think crêpes are a typical Parisian cliché, you’re absolutely right, and Paris serves them up in abundance. You can fill the thin pancakes with toppings of your choice, with sweet-toothed diners typically opting for Nutella, and savoury lovers going for the jambon fromage — ham and cheese.
In a landlocked city such as Paris, parks and rivers offer a refuge from the urban streets and a connection to nature, and Parisians flock to these sites the moment the sun peeks through the clouds.
Parks such as Tuileries or Luxembourg are lined with the iconic Parisian sage green chairs surrounding the fountains, many of them reclined backward so park-goers can sit back and soak in the sun. Picnic spreads ranging from full charcuterie platters, to baguettes, to three-euro bottles of wine are the norm in the warmer months, as people fill the river banks or patches of grass all across the city.
Outside of the city, the gardens of Versailles are as breathtakingly impressive, if not more so, than the palace they flank. Strolling the grounds here is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Or, especially during springtime, take the train over to Parc de Sceaux and immerse yourself in a cherry blossom paradise, as pink petals fill the fields as far as the eye can see. Parisians certainly know how to enjoy the outdoor space that they have.
While some things may not going according to plan on your trip to Paris, remember to embrace everything for playing out in its own Parisian way.
If it’s raining and cold, bundle up as the Parisians do and soak in the beauty that is Paris in the rain.
If the transit workers are on strike and metro systems are not running, laugh it off with the stereotype of the stubborn French, and proceed to take on this beautiful city by foot.
If you get lost, keep right on wandering and admire the charming architecture and quaint terraces that are around every corner.
If someone seems pushy or cold, smile to yourself at the French stereotype, and recognize that under that tough exterior is a bunch of kind, romantic, warm souls who are just going about their day.
The Parisian charm is alive and well for anyone who is open to experiencing it. So whether it’s your first trip to Paris or you’re living there full time, stroll the streets, take in the sights, and don’t forget to soak in the under-the-radar magic that is oh so Parisian.
COVER: Streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Photo: Kellie Paxian